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NCAAW Tournament Preview: Top teams should coast in the NCAAW Tournament’s Greensboro region — but can Drake pull off an upset?

No. 1 Baylor, No. 2 Iowa and No. 3 NC State should get easy first-round wins. But it remains uncertain how No. 4 South Carolina will do after its SEC Tournament upset, and whether the Drake Bulldogs can upset inconsistency-prone No. 7 Missouri.

The No. 10 Drake Bulldogs have the greatest potential to pull off an upset in the first round of the the NCAAW Tournament’s Greensboro region.
Photo courtesy of Drake Women’s Basketball via Twitter

The 2019 NCAAW Tournament tips off Friday, Mar. 22, and nowhere is the action more exciting than in the Greensboro region.

Nationally-ranked No. 1 Baylor leads the way, followed by regional No. 2 Iowa and No. 3 NC State. But the Greensboro region also features lower-ranked teams with potential to upset their higher-ranked opponents — like No. 10 Drake over No. 7 Missouri, for example, and No. 9 North Carolina over No. 8 California.

But other questions linger:

After having its heartbroken in the SEC Tournament, can No. 4 South Carolina regroup against No. 13 Belmont?

If No. 6 Kentucky has an off night, will No. 11 Princeton pull off an upset?

Here’s what to expect in the first round of the NCAAW Tournament’s Greensboro region:

Greensboro region

No. 1 Baylor vs. No. 16 Abilene Christian

On paper, these teams look compatible: Baylor averages 80.5 points per game while Abilene Christian averages 74.3; Baylor’s 50 percent shooting from the field to Abilene C.’s 46.6 percent. And the No. 16 seed in the Greensboro region even bests Baylor in one category: scoring 18 points off turnovers to the Lady Bears’ 11.1. But Abilene C. hasn’t faced a ranked competitor all season, even in its 10 wins and four losses outside of the Southland conference. Baylor, meanwhile, is No. 1 nationally due to a 31-1 record that includes wins over six ranked teams, including UConn (then, at No. 1 in the AP Poll). Baylor’s one loss was to Stanford (Dec. 15, 2018).

Prediction: The Lady Bears are on a roll and ready to steamroll over Abilene Christian, which is outmatched against the powerhouse known as the Lady Bears.

No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 15 Mercer

Having faced nine ranked teams this season, Iowa came away with wins in seven of those contests, including against the likes Rutgers, Michigan State and Maryland — which were then-ranked by the AP No. 14, No. 23 and No. 7, respectively. Mercer, meanwhile, finished 25-7 overall, including a 14-0 sweep of its games in Southern Conference play. Keke Calloway (17.9 points) and two of her teammates average double-digit scoring. But Iowa has four players scoring in double figures, including Megan Gustafson, with 28 points (and 13.3 rebounds) per game.

Prediction: Without being tested against a ranked team all season and facing Gustafson, it will be like a domestic kitten meeting a blood-thirsty lion for the first time. Expect a rough night for Mercer, with Iowa clenching an easy first-round win.

No. 3 NC State vs. No. 14 Maine

NC State started its season with a 21-game winning streak before falling to North Carolina on Feb. 3. But the Wolfpack has won against just one ranked team — No. 15 Miami, by two points — and it lost once to Notre Dame and twice to Louisville. Maine, however, has faced just two ranked teams this season and lost both contests to then-No. 20 Duke (Nov. 15, 2018) and then-No. 10 NC State (Dec. 15, 2018), with the Wolfpack obliterating the Black Bears in an 84-46 blowout.

Prediction: Although Maine may try to make it interesting, if the prior meeting between these teams is any indication, the Wolfpack should snag a commanding victory.

No. 4 South Carolina vs. No. 13 Belmont

Belmont ran over the competition during the season and blew out opponents regularly. But its meeting with its sole ranked opponent of the season (then-No. 10 Tennessee) ended in an 84-76 loss (Dec. 30, 2018). South Carolina enters this first-round matchup having overcome a concerning start to the season, forcing a long stretch in which the Gamecocks seemed to be returning to their former glory ... until being bounced from the SEC Tournament quarterfinals by unranked Arkansas.

Prediction: If South Carolina’s confidence isn’t blown after its latest setback in the SEC Tournament, the Gamecocks should win. But if they doubt their abilities in the NCAAW Tournament, Belmont could pull off an upset.

No. 5 Florida State vs. No. 12 Bucknell

Florida State enters the tournament with some strong wins under its belt: then-No. 12 Iowa at the Thanksgiving Day Junkanoo Jam, then-No. 23 Miami (Jan. 31) and No. 9 NC State (Feb. 7). But the Seminoles were ousted from the ACC Tournament in the quarterfinals by the same Wolfpack team, 69-62, with blowout losses to Notre Dame and Louisville signaling challenges to a deep tournament run. But Bucknell hasn’t played a ranked team all season and its team-high scorer, Kaitlyn Slagus, averages 13 points per game, with just two other double-digit scorers on the roster. Meanwhile, Kiah Gillespie averages 16.2 points and nine rebounds per game, with two of her teammates contributing double-digit scoring for the Seminoles.

Prediction: Bucknell will struggle due to inexperience against the more seasoned Florida State. Although the Seminoles may have an easy time in this matchup, they will struggle in subsequent rounds.

No. 6 Kentucky vs. No. 11 Princeton

Kentucky enters the first round boasting a resume filled with commanding wins over ranked teams, from season’s start to season’s end, until they were stopped by Missouri in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament. Kentucky managed wins over Missouri, Tennessee, Auburn and South Carolina. Princeton, meanwhile, has a string of losses to ranked competition, including DePaul and Syracuse at the Cancun Challenge in November.

Prediction: With Princeton lacking both experience and success over ranked teams, if SEC Freshman of the Year Rhyne Howard scores near her average of 16 points per game, and the Wildcats lock down defensively, Kentucky should advance with ease.

No. 7 Missouri vs. No. 10 Drake

Missouri started the season with AP Poll ranking, and then its season took a nosedive before patterning into a roller-coaster ride. When it counted most, however, the Tigers — led by Sophie Cunningham, who became the leading scorer in program history during the SEC Tournament — turned it on. Missouri handed Mississippi State its only loss in SEC conference play and also beat Tennessee and Texas A&M in the run-up to the SEC Tournament, where the Tigers beat Kentucky in the quarterfinals before being bounced by Mississippi State in the semis. But Drake, led by Becca Hittner’s 19.8 points per game, should be considered a threat, given that the Bulldogs have pulled off wins over Rutgers and South Carolina this season.

Prediction: Prone to inconsistency, if Mizzou has a “down” game, Drake could eke out a win for a major first-round upset. Although Bulldogs will have their hands full containing Cunningham, who can shoot from every spot on the floor and defend under the basket, a win is within reach.

No. 8 California vs. No. 9 North Carolina

North Carolina shocked reigning NCAAW champion Notre Dame with a 78-75 win on Jan. 27, at home. A few games later, the Tar Heels got the better of NC State, 64-51 (Feb. 3). During this same stretch of the season, California upset Stanford on its home floor, 81-80 (Jan. 31). But the Golden Bears have suffered several blowout losses this season, too, including in subsequent meetings with Stanford — by 25 points (Feb. 2) and by 18 points (Mar. 8). And that’s to say nothing of the team’s drubbings by the likes of Oregon.

Prediction: If a No. 9 seed beating a No. 8 seed is considered an upset, then so be it. The Tar Heels have the edge in upset potential.

Game information

The 2019 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament tips off Friday! The dates and viewing information for the first two rounds are provided below. Return to Swish Appeal for previews and recaps of each day of tournament action. The previews will include individual game times.

First round

When: Friday, March 22; Saturday, March 23

Where: Campus sites (teams seeded 1-4 host)

How to watch: ESPN2, WatchESPN

Second round

When: Sunday, March 24; Monday, March 25

Where: Campus sites (teams seeded 1-4 host)

How to watch: ESPN, ESPN2, WatchESPN